Phoenix

phoenix

There are few creatures more iconic – or symbolic – of the Harry Potter series than the phoenix. From the Order of the Phoenix to the twin cores of Harry and Voldemort’s wands, phoenix imagery is everywhere in Harry Potter. But what does it mean?

Like many of the fantastic creatures featured in Harry Potter, the phoenix has its origins in mythology. It tends to represent death and rebirth in a very literal way: when it reaches the end of its life, it dies in a blaze of fire and is reborn from the ashes. There’s an obvious connection to the Harry Potter series there. Through the first 3 books of the series, Voldemort appears to be dead, but he returns to power in Goblet of Fire, while Harry believes at the end of the series that he has to die, but he survives and goes on to defeat Voldemort. It’s not until both of them have “died”, returned, and lost possession of their phoenix feather wands that one of them can truly die.

Harry and Voldemort both survive things that would have killed anyone else. But the way they do so is significant. While Voldemort murders others to make himself immortal, Harry is saved by his mother’s sacrifice the first time and his own willingness to lay down his life the second time. According to Dumbledore, the secret to the Deathly Hallows is that they don’t make their owner immortal. In order to truly master them, one must master one’s fear of death. This is the difference between Harry and Voldemort, and what makes Harry a metaphorical phoenix: he willingly burns himself up to save others, without knowing he will rise from the ashes.

Harry has been associated with phoenix imagery from the beginning. In Sorcerer’s Stone, he risks his life by walking through fire to stop Voldemort from obtaining immortality; in Chamber of Secrets, he is saved by phoenix tears after stopping another of Voldemort’s attempts to return; and of course, in Goblet of Fire, Voldemort is unable to kill him when their phoenix feather wands connect.

On a larger scale, there’s the Order of the Phoenix. They are metaphorically reborn just after Voldemort’s return, and every one of their members risks their life in the fight against Voldemort. They refuse to be defeated. Even when Voldemort takes control of Britain, they continue fighting; even in the harsh alternate world created in Cursed Child, a remnant of the Order remains. The message seems to be that evil can never snuff out good entirely. As long as those remain who are willing to fight for what’s right, there is still hope. Many members of the Order die in the final Harry Potter book, but they’re victorious in the end, and the world they’ve been fighting for rises from the ashes of the war.

Right vs Easy

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It’s easy to do what’s right when what’s right is also easy, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it’s worth doing anyway. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one that certainly applies to real life just as much as it does to the world of Harry Potter. But it’s more than just a quote with a good message. It’s a theme that’s woven throughout the series in the journey of every single character. (At least, every character with enough of a conscience not to do the wrong thing just for its own sake. Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Umbridge are their own special category.)

Harry has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in every single book, and he always chooses the former. When he goes after the troll to save Hermione, when he fights a basilisk to save Ginny, and when he travels back in time to save Sirius, he is choosing the right thing over the much easier alternative of simply doing as he’s told and letting events unfold without him. Likewise, Ron and Hermione often make those choices alongside him. As the series goes on, he seems to have less of a choice – Voldemort wants him dead – but even then, he chooses to fight him. Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Aberforth encourages him, Ron, and Hermione to flee the country rather than face Voldemort, they refuse to even consider it. And, of course, running away might become even more tempting once he realizes he has to die in order for Voldemort to become mortal, but Harry is willing to lay down his life to protect his friends, just as his mother sacrificed herself to save him. That’s not an easy choice to make.

Order of the Phoenix is all about the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s what separates the Order from the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore’s Army from the Inquisitorial Squad. It’s easy for Fudge to deny that Voldemort is back; it would be much harder to admit the truth. It’s easy for the Daily Prophet to publish whatever “news” will sell and scandalize, but harder for Harry and those who support him to speak the truth when the Ministry is actively trying to silence them. It’s much harder for the Order to fight against Voldemort when they find themselves at odds with the magical government as well, and Dumbledore’s Army likewise refuses to let themselves be unprepared for the coming war. The DA’s insistence on doing the right thing even when it’s not easy becomes even more obvious in Deathly Hallows, when they spend the year fighting back against the Death Eaters who now run Hogwarts and fight on Harry’s side in the final battle.

Everyone at Hogwarts has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in the final battle: to evacuate or stay and defend the castle, to hand Harry over to Voldemort or fight on his side, and eventually, to surrender or keep fighting once Harry appears to be dead. Nothing says choosing what’s right over what’s easy like Neville telling Voldemort “I’ll join you when hell freezes over”, pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat, and chopping off the head of Voldemort’s monstrous snake, Nagini, right there in front of everyone, especially not when – as far as he knows – Harry is already dead.

I think it’s interesting that the movie-makers chose to contrast his actions with those of Draco Malfoy, a character who consistently chooses the easy path, rather than the right one or even the wrong one. He doesn’t kill Dumbledore, but nor does he accept Dumbledore’s offer to protect him. Later, in Deathly Hallows, he pretends not to recognize Harry, but he doesn’t do anything to help him escape. In both cases, he does nothing and simply allows others to act. Draco is not in the book version of the scene where Voldemort announces Harry’s “death”, and I’m not a big fan of the awkward hug, but going back over to join his parents does seem consistent with his character and emphasizes that standing up to a powerful Dark Lord who seems to have already won is not an easy thing to do.

There are many characters who make the easy choice, some more sympathetic than others. Of course, that’s largely a matter of personal opinion, but I think few people would argue that Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of Lily and James Potter was anything other than vile and cowardly, while on the other hand, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry in was very complicated due to the fact that Voldemort was holding his daughter hostage. Many more characters struggle with making the harder, better choice, like Professor Slughorn, who initially gives Dumbledore a false memory, not because he wants to protect Voldemort, but because he is ashamed of having unknowingly helped young Tom Riddle become Voldemort. The amount of nuance is surprisingly deep for a children’s series, but I love it. I think it’s important to understand that not everything is black and white, without downplaying the importance of trying to do the right thing.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it seems harder to make the right choice after having already made the wrong one; the consequences and risks become much greater. Take Regulus Black, for instance. He joined the Death Eaters as a teenager and quickly realized it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. When he found out just how far Voldemort had gone, he did the right thing, but it cost him his life. Likewise, Snape made many wrong choices as a young man, and it wasn’t until he found out he had inadvertently put Lily’s life in danger that he began trying to do the right thing. The Harry Potter books certainly don’t send a message that morality is black and white or that you can never come back from your mistakes, even very serious ones. On the contrary, many characters do, including Dumbledore himself, who made mistakes of his own in his youth. However, they do seem to say that it takes great courage to do so, and that it’s never easy.

Most people are not Voldemort. There may be some, both in fiction and reality, who care so little about right and wrong that they would hurt other people for no reason at all, but I think that most people would rather do the right thing when we can, and yet sometimes struggle with it. It’s easy to tell the truth if you have nothing to hide. It’s easy to be brave if you’re not afraid. It’s easy to stand up for what you believe in if everyone around you agrees. It’s when doing the right thing is the hardest choice to make that things get difficult, and it’s in those moments that our character is truly tested.